Democrats Make Rare SWFL Play



Democrats feel optimistic about their chances in November, so much so they will direct resources and organize in Southwest Florida. But can it make a difference in areas where Republicans hold a numbers advantage? With the appointment of a Sarasota activist to the Florida Democratic Party’s board of trustees, party officials clearly aim to find out.

Jordan Letschert, now one of 20 people on party’s board, said this year marks a chance at “revolutionizing the Florida Democratic Party.” The appointment means he will end his bid for Sarasota County Commission, where he had been in a primary with Wesley Beggs in District 4, and he called for candidates to avoid primaries in the Sarasota area for the sake of unity.

Letschert said it’s a good time for Democrats to reorganize state priorities, not only because of the signs of a strong performance in the mid-terms but because the FDP has been in the process of cleaning house. As the party bolsters its get-out-the-vote efforts and debates its core mission statement, Letschert says the party will reach into parts of the state largely untouched in recent cycles. And while the FDP for years relied on a strategy of boosting turnout in stronghold areas like Miami, the party now will try to be competitive outside just major metropolitan areas. “There are Democrats in Sarasota,” Letschert says. “We have a lot of statewide elections decided by 100,000 votes or less, and that’s when 990,000 Democrats haven’t been targeted.”

JoAnne DeVries, chairman of the Sarasota Democratic Party, says officials will organize for candidates up and down the ballot. At the state level, Democrats this year devised a 67-county strategy plan and will participate in moderate races. “One of the things they have done is hire Community Engagment Directors in regions around the state,” DeVries says, “who will be working with area DEC's to assist in organizing/training.”

But will it translate into results? Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota, says it would take more than a single good election cycle to produce huge results in a county where Republicans still outnumber Democrats by about 38,000 voters. “Republicans may be facing somewhat of a headwind come November,” he says, “but in Sarasota County, the numbers are the numbers.” For emphasis, he turns to the frequently discussed “blue wave” coming in November. Sarasota County boasts a 100-foot Republican seawall, Gruters says, so a 60-foot wave that would flood out some areas won’t necessarily wash out here. That said, some regions with a tighter registration gap could see competitive contests, and the mix of candidates in any given race ultimately has an effect as well.

Christian Ziegler, Sarasota County’s Republican state committeeman, says a shift in priorities could only happen if Letschert and company dramatically change the Democratic party’s legislative agenda and stop focusing on identity politics. “I won’t hold my breath for that to happen,” Ziegler says, “which is why I predict that the current media storyline of the 'Blue Wave' will appear in headlines the morning after election day as the 'Blue Hype.'”

But Letschert says the stakes this November offer a lot of appeal to Democrats, who want to hold a U.S. Senate seat, take the governor’s mansion and pick up legislative seats, including one in Sarasota. “The new philosophy will be to reach into county and municipal races like we haven’t seen before,” he says.

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